Scientific models

According to the British philosopher, Karl Popper, “Science may be described as the art of systematic oversimplification.” This concept is illustrated in our definition of scientific models, that is, a simplified abstract view of the complex reality. Models can greatly affect the knowledge in natural sciences, which is defined as the naturalistic approach to the study of the universe by obeying rules or laws of natural origin.

One instance of this is Bohr’s model of the atom. His model is useful: correctly teaching students about the correct locations of the electrons, protons and neutrons and so on. However, Dr. Ulrich M�ller from Dordrecht opposes its usefulness. He argues that Bohr’s model, in reality most models, involves the simplification process which removes the knowledge from its real referent. However, it can be seen that scientific models are useful, despite their inaccuracies.The representations of scientific models in natural science are not always accurate.

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It is important to note the word “simplified” in the definition: that a model is a simplified abstract view of the complex reality. Because of this simplification there will often be a number of inaccuracies as a result. These inaccuracies can occur in both physical and theoretical models, and can include problems with size and scale. The issues of wrong sizes and scales can lead to misleading learners. One example of an inaccuracy in a physical model is a typical representation of a solar system, such as my junior science project. While the relative order of the planets was generally correct, the scale was and is almost never accurate. For instance, unlike my model, if the earth was made only as large as the head of a pin, the sun would need to have a diameter of 41cm, which would be replicated by very few physical models.

However it can be argued that is it really necessary for models to be accurate. The junior students will not expect to know the exact relative sizes and densities of the planets. However, as Dr. M�ller explains through the theoretical model, the Bohr model of the atom, it is too misleading, even for junior students. As the electrons orbiting the nucleus are illustrated in defined rings in what would appear to be a set position, when in reality, the electrons are part of an electron cloud in which the particles are moving at very high speeds. Basically Bohr’s model has been oversimplified to the point of it being, arguably, wrong. However, from a teacher’s point of view, it is not necessarily wrong; Bohr’s model effectively conveys the idea of different shells which is true and this cannot be illustrated through the model of the electron cloud. Therefore, we comprehend that models are indeed not always accurate but the question of a models’ purpose is raised.

Can models only fulfil their specific purposes? All models have been created for the purpose of illustrating an idea or a theory; however, in general they are only useful in one aspect of understanding what the model represents. One example would be this satellite image of the Sydney CBD, essentially a model of the real thing, which is useful in displaying things like the distribution of trees in hyde park, as well as the surroundings visible from the air. However this type of map would be very impractical when searching for a street, or when looking for say, a Chinese restaurant.However this map displays the names of the streets as well as locations of Chinese restaurants around the city. In the case of Bohr’s model of the atom, as explained before, it effectively conveys the idea of different shells and the maximum electrons found in each shell.

These functions cannot be explained through the model of the electron cloud whose purpose would probably be to illustrate the reality of an electron and the existence of electron sub-shells like the s,p,d and f sub-orbitals. However it also demonstrates the quantum theory and all implications of the quantum theory. But perhaps that, in extension, was also a purpose of the model. Therefore, we can conclude that models do achieve their appointed purposes.

Now, let us evaluate if scientific models are useful and effective, despite their inaccuracies. According to us, useful could be taken to mean a beneficial use while effective is producing the desired result. Basically, so far our reasoning is ‘inaccuracies in a model may affect the model’s purpose.’ Since, during the first term, I had decided to change my subject to biology, I had to catch up on missed topics.

One of those topics was ‘The chemistry of life.’ I had come across a diagram of a DNA molecule replicating and due to the oversimplification, it had misleaded me into thinking replication occurs when the DNA is uncoiled. Taken the example of the periodic table, inaccuracies may include the absence of certain elements due to being undiscovered.

The last major changes to the periodic table resulted from Glenn Seaborg’s work in the middle of the 20th Century.Starting with his discovery of plutonium in 1940, he discovered all the transuranic elements from 94 to 102. He reconfigured the periodic table by placing the actinide series below the lanthanide series. The purpose of the periodic table (to show an element’s weight, structure, etc, relative to other elements) was changed due to inaccuracies (missing elements). If we assess Bohr’s model, the space between the electrons and the nucleus is evidently mistaken. One of the purposes of the model being to convey the idea of maximum electrons found in each shell would be illustrated incorrectly as, taken the example of Calcium, it illustrates that the third orbital can hold a maximum of eight electrons, but in reality the maximum it can hold is 18 (due to the formula 2n2.Through a teacher’s perspective, a model is still very reliable as it still illustrates the basics which are needed to understand the more complicated elements of the theory. However through a scientist’s point of view, like Muller’s, a model is still close to inaccurate as it is far from the bigger picture.

Many different models, with different significant points could come close to being a replication of the current theory but individually, models only point out a few things. Therefore, we can say that scientific models are useful and effective only to an extent owing to the fact that inaccuracies in a model may affect the model’s purpose.This changes the perception at which models are looked at; it can cause a huge implication in the knowledge of science, math and economics, which are major subjects.

Models could be seen as misleading and steps would have to be taken to solve it. Particularly in economics, equations are constantly refered to as models (which are then also termed ‘mathematical models’). The Mundell-Fleming model of an open economy or the Black-Scholes model of the stock market are cases in point. The economy, for instance, would have to change its model to a very accurate one, as the economy is always changing due to money supply, government expenditure and global interest rate. Any other model inclusive of the inaccuracies of scale, and all these determining factors would turn out to be far from precise. Even if this conclusion doesn’t affect society or its perception, then models would continue to be perceived as more accurate than they are misleading a large number in the population.